“China’s not going for the jugular … [it’s] developing these countermeasures in a way to punish the United States without also hurting itself too much at the same time”, said Bonny Lin, former country director for China at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are things [on the list] that we haven’t made significant progress with China on, that we have common interest to do, but they aren’t going to significantly rock the boat in terms of overall U.S.-China relations.”
The Chinese list of targeted cooperation areas excluded trade and health security related to the pandemic, suggesting an official effort to mitigate potential blowback that could harm China’s interests. “This seems underwhelming … there are plenty of things in the realm of what I call core concerns of China that they are leaving untouched,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center.
At the top of Beijing’s list of targeted bilateral cooperation items was the cancellation of three upcoming military-to-military meetings, including the China-U.S. Theater Commanders talks, Defense Policy Coordination talks and Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings. Those cancellations are worrisome given the inadequacy of existing U.S.-China military crisis communications at a time when People’s Liberation Army forces are conducting an unprecedented level of ongoing live fire military drills in the vicinity of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.
High-level bilateral military contacts have long been a vexed issue. Beijing repeatedly rebuffed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s efforts to secure a call with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe. Austin finally succeeded in speaking to Wei in April after almost 18 months of efforts.
“We want more open communications particularly between our militaries at a time like this,” John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, said Friday. “Because when you have this much military hardware steaming and sailing and flying around, the chances of misperceptions and miscalculations only increase.”
But the relatively low-level nature of the canceled talks suggests that Beijing’s cancellation was more form than substance.
“These are all useful engagements but ones that are not at the very top level and …[bilateral] communications will remain open,” said Ret. Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, professor of practice at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “I would hope that as opposed to being canceled, these [meetings] are actually just being suspended and that cooler heads would prevail sometime into next year.”
The announcement of cancellations allows Beijing to publicly vent about the Pelosi visit while providing time to walk them back in the coming months. That performative aspect of the Chinese response reflects President Xi Jinping’s domestic political considerations and the need to burnish his image as an iron-willed defender of China’s territorial integrity. That effort is particularly urgent in the run-up to autumn’s 20th Communist Party Congress, where Xi is widely expected to emerge with an unprecedented third term as a paramount leader.
“The problem for Xi Jinping is that he needs to appear tough before the Party Congress — already, online [in China] some are mentioning the weakness of the Chinese response to the visit,” said Anthony J. Saich, director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
The Chinese government hammered home its indignation over Pelosi’s visit — which Beijing considers an unacceptable expression of U.S. support for Taiwan independence — in a meeting on Thursday between Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang and Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator. Qin’s talking points likely mirrored those of a screed he published in the Washington Post on Thursday in which he warned that Pelosi’s actions had “aroused the indignation of the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington reiterated that stance, saying that China was blameless in a bilateral furor that could have dire geopolitical consequences. “The U.S. and Taiwan have made provocations together first, whereas China has been compelled to act in self-defense,” Jing said Friday. “[Taiwan] is one of the very few issues that might take China and the United States to conflict or even a war.”
Despite that rhetoric, the relatively low impact of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response suggests that Beijing wants to convey displeasure without gutting the bilateral relationship. “They are cutting off cooperation in areas that we’re trying to push them to cooperate, but we weren’t seeing too many results,” Lin said. “Anything [restricted] on the much larger security or trade ties would have a more significant impact.”
But the Chinese move to suspend China-U.S. talks on climate change sparked sharp criticism from the White House. “They think they’re punishing us by shutting down this channel — they’re actually punishing the whole world because the climate crisis doesn’t recognize geographic boundaries,” Kirby said.
Close observers of U.S.-China climate cooperation express hope that the suspension of talks will be strictly temporary and that the two sides will be able to return to engagement on carbon emission reductions in the near future.
“It definitely stings given the bilateral engagement that is lined up in the coming weeks in the lead up to COP 27…. I would hope and expect to see talks resume well before the end of the year,” said Joanna Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University and an expert on China’s climate policies.
U.S. lawmakers wrestling with the thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. each year from illicit fentanyl made from Chinese raw materials are dismayed by China’s move to suspend U.S.-China counternarcotics cooperation.” It’s particularly disappointing because despite our disagreements with China on a host of issues, counternarcotics cooperation had been a bright spot in the bilateral relationship in years past.” said Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), co-chair of the Biden administration’s Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.
GOP lawmakers see Beijing’s retaliation for Pelosi’s visit as yet more evidence that China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party can’t be trusted as a reliable partner even on issues of clear mutual interest.
“It’s clear from these actions the CCP is not interested in avoiding conflict, upholding the rule of law, stopping their flow of poisonous drugs into the United States, or cooperating on climate,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “The Biden administration’s policy to ‘cooperate wherever we can’ with the CCP is not realistic, and I urge them to deal with the reality of the CCP, not what they wish it to be.”
Meanwhile, the White House is bracing for the potential for more Chinese retaliation for Pelosi’s Taiwan trip in the days to come.
“It’s difficult to know what exactly the Chinese side is thinking here in terms of intention and duration … we would like to see the tensions come down immediately,” Kirby said.
Nicolle Liu and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.